How to Avoid 5 Big Grant Proposal Mistakes

If you don't have Marvin Teitel's book, Winning Foundation Grants: A Foundation CEO Reveals The Secrets You Need to Know  (Buy from Amazon), you'll want to give it a spot right on your desk when you are grappling with a grant proposal.

Teitel offers us the view from the other side of the desk as the CEO of a foundation. He has seen thousands of proposals over the years. He says that there are five common mistakes that proposal writers make. Check your proposals against this list.

Talking more about problems than solutions.

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Don't confuse your grant proposal with your communications with donors or the general public. A proposal is not an educational pamphlet that mobilizes the public.

Your proposal must show that you are familiar with the issue you're dealing with, but must, first and foremost, focus on what you are going to do about the problem or need.

Remember that a grant proposal is a plan of action, so make it as specific as possible. Explain the problem but then move on to what you'll be doing about it.

Addressing specific problems with general solutions.

Man explaining a chart.
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A successful proposal paints a clear picture of what your organization will do to address the issue at hand. Don't just wax eloquent about the problem or preach about it. Provide specific details about the actions you will take to address it.

Teitel suggests that the lack of concrete measures might be because the writer is insufficiently aware of what's being done by her organization. Or, it could mean that the group needs to go back to its strategic planning before it tries to raise funds.

Are you collaborating with the program staff who will implement the program you are proposing? They have the on-the-ground knowledge that will add vital details to your proposal.

Involve your program team with the grant writing process. Help them zero in on the specifics, the statistics, and on any research they have conducted about possible solutions. Let them know just how important specific details are to the success of the proposal

Using buzzwords and jargon.

Comic book type word HUH?
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Teitel says, "Some proposal writers confuse density with erudition." What one needs is simple prose that "tells a story or paints a picture."

Avoid vague claims, trendy language, and obscure terms - they won't impress the funder and may cause him to dislike your proposal.

Does your program team talk with acronyms and jargon? Take the time to unravel what they say and translate it into language anyone can understand. Don't be afraid to say, "I don't understand. Could you say that in plain English?"

Tip: Use an app such as Grammarly or Hemingway to help avoid wordiness and complex sentences while writing your proposal.

Budgets that don't make sense.

Woman at desk working on a budget.
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Teitel says that, surprisingly, some proposals arrive with math errors that undermine the organization's credibility. He points out that, "...the budget should not only add up, it also has to support the logic of the proposal's narrative." Also, involve your business manager with the grant writing. Do the numbers make sense?  How can the budget explanation be improved? 

Repeating exact phrases from the funder's guidelines.

Cutting and pasting tools
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Just pasting phrases from the funder's guidelines into your proposal will not result in funding.

All good proposals should fit the foundation's guidelines, but telling how and why they fit is what is important. Cutting and pasting just says that you've read the funder's website.

Avoid a cookie-cutter approach to your proposal. Think about how you can match the funder's needs in a creative way and still stay within the guidelines. It's a thin line to walk, but do it well, and your proposal will stand out from the competition.

Also, don't cut and paste from prior proposals. Make each proposal original and unique to each funder. Cutting and pasting between proposals also runs the risk of making a mistake that a funder will notice. Even "boilerplate" descriptions that you use over and over can become stale, stilted, and too formal. Force yourself to rewrite these sections for every proposal.

It is hard enough to write a good proposal. Don't undercut yourself by making these mistakes, that, with some care, can easily be avoided.